April 18, 2019 – April 22, 2019
For the Easter holidays, we decided to take a trip to the Basque Country in northern Spain to experience culinary wonders and wine. We spent two nights in Bilbao and two nights in San Sebastian.
Here are some of the highlights of our trip.
La Rioja Wine Tour
Our spunky Basque tour guide, Irene picked us up bright and early for a wine tour through La Rioja. Right away she launched into a history of the Basque country sharing that Basque is actually a different language than Spanish. The Basque people can be considered the ‘Indians’ of Europe. They speak the oldest language that is still alive in Europe (even older than Latin). There are 7 Basque provinces, and we spent time in two during our travels.
We drove about an hour from Bilbao to the first winery Cune. Really, the winery is called Compania Vinicola del Norte de Espana, but when they sent the label to the printer, what they got back was Cune, which is much simpler, and so they didn’t change it. We participated in a very informative tour here and learned some interesting facts.
To be certified Rioja, there must be at least 80% Tempranillo grapes included in the wine. Grand reserva wine has to be aged for a minimum of 5 years. The most common aging barrels are American oak (for a sweet taste) and French oak (for a spicy taste). Cune is a family run (5th generation) winery founded by two brothers from Bilbao. Because of a sickness spreading through the French grapes, a lot of wine makers moved their vineyards to Spain and this what started the rise of Rioja. It’s now the 3rd largest wine region in Europe!
On the winery tour, we also saw some cool buildings. The Eiffel Cellar was created by the architect of the Eiffel Tower! The brothers used the same architect because they wanted to do something different. Most of the cellars used pillars throughout to support the stone roof, but this wasn’t ideal because wine used to be sold by the barrel. It was hard to navigate the barrels to transport with the pillars in place. So the Eiffel guy designed this cellar using iron supports on the roof, with no pillars in the middle. The brothers could easily roll the barrels to the large windows to load on the train for shipping.
We tasted the Monopole and the Cune reserva at this winery.
The second winery we visited was Bodegas Izadi, located in the middle of a small town where the only business is wine. Here we tried three wines: the Blanco 2018 which pairs nicely with salmon and white meat; and the Crianza 2016, which is one of the best vintages, and is soft and balanced; and the Seleccion, a well rounded which is aged 16 months in the French oak.
We were supposed to have a private tour, but a Dutch couple showed up and ended up joining us at the next winery as well. It was interesting to talk to them, because they were really into wine and asked good questions to the wine makers.
For our third wine destination, we headed to the town of Laguardia and went into the wine caves.
The series of caves were dug in the 1500s to provide protection from frequent wars, but eventually the wars calmed down and the caves were instead used to store wine, with each house sealing off its own part of a cave. The winery we visited had huge concrete vats down in the cave to age the wine before putting it into bottles.
We learned that it’s better to rinse wine glasses with wine before drinking to ensure that all of the soapy residue from the dishwasher is gone. We tasted unfinished wine from 2016, straight from the vat.
By the time we’d visited three wineries, we were very hungry and our guide took us to an authentic little place in Laguardia for some patatas bravas, pork chops, and delicious desserts. It was an hour long drive back to Bilbao, which I slept through.
Explore Bilbao Old Town
Bilbao itself was actually much bigger than I expected. We stayed near the Guggenheim Museum, which was about a 20 minute walk from the Old Town, if you’re strolling, like one should do when on vacation. Walking along the Estuary of Bilbao (aka river), you’re bound to see some cool things. Maybe because it was a holiday weekend, but the whole city was popping! The weather was nice, and everyone was out and about.
Near the market, we saw a strong man competition, where two male contestants were chopping some wood. The crowd was going crazy for these two guys. We didn’t stick around to see who won. The street performer who really caught our eye was a man who had this huge balloon and ended up putting himself into the balloon and bouncing around. I also enjoyed the various bridges that crossed the river.
Since it was Easter weekend, there was a parade through the town. A very religious parade where the participants were authentically dressed. They marched around very slowly playing music and carrying crosses and alters. It was a bit creepy and we got stuck in the middle of the city surrounded by the parade. I enjoyed it for a few minutes, but then was annoyed that we couldn’t find out way out!
Really, the joy of the old town is just getting lost walking through the streets and admiring all of the old buildings.
Eat Amazing Food
Bilbao and San Sebastian are home to some of the best restaurants in the world. For dinner in Bilbao, we chose to go to Eneko a 1 Michelin star restaurant located in some kind of opera/museum. It’s a relatively new restaurant and upon walking in, my first impression was that it was very bright. They needed to turn the lights down, but I was still excited for the food. The restaurant incorporates Basque culture into the dishes and we chose the Biscay menu.
Kaipiritxa, orange and foie, mushroom brioche
Vegetable tartar, oil caviar and plants and flowers emulsion
Grilled oyster with olive ashes and roasted butter air
Farm egg yolk on wheat stew and coal grilled vegetable sauce
Beef tail wrapped in crusty bread, legume stock and Idiazabal bombons
Lobster cooked on vine shoot, it’s juice and interior’s fritter
Grilled sirloin, Idiazabal cheese gnocchis and basil pesto
Grilled torrija and farmhouse milk ice-cream
By the time we got to the beef tail, I was already completely stuffed. The dish portions were pretty large, so you definitely got your moneys worth. Tyler opted for the wine pairing, and I just had one glass of white and one glass of red to go with my courses. I really enjoyed the grilled sirloin and the dessert. Tyler’s favorite was the orange foie gras, which was also very memorable.
Get Cultured at the Guggenheim
The Guggenheim is a museum of modern art and the building itself might be just as amazing as the artwork held inside. It’s honestly something like I’ve never seen before with all of the different types of materials and designs used to build it. There’s also a really cool big dog outside made of flowers as well as a creepy spindly spider made of metals.
We got to the museum right as it opened hoping to get some tickets before the line got too long. We succeeded and headed straight in. The first exhibit we saw was a room full of huge metal sculptures that you could walk inside of. They had various shapes and designs, but most were basically a maze of spirals. When you walked in, you were transported into a quieter place and could really just feel the art.
As we walked through the museum, I realized that maybe modern art just isn’t my thing. The main collection consisted of: a painting with a totally black background except for one white circle, a blue and white design of splatters of paint, a painting of what looked like the Spanish flag with red and yellow stripes, and a painting that was supposed to be a garden, but was very abstract. You can’t take pictures in the museum, but I would encourage you to look at the images on the Guggenheim website.
Another huge room of art was filled with the works of Giorgio Morandi. He basically just painted the same still life scenes over and over and over and over. There were so many vases of flowers and little containers. He did get progressively better over his lifetime, but I was not super impressed.
Aside from paintings, the museum also had works from activists. There were a lot of politically charged exhibits talking about wars and climate change.
The Guggenheim is definitely worth a visit when you are in Bilbao, even if it’s just to make fun of the artwork they have there. Just kidding 😉
Pintxos and Txacoli
We enjoyed our guide for the La Rioja tour so much that we asked her to give us a pintxos tour the next day. Pintxos are typical Basque bar food that consist mostly of some type of bread and then seafood or meat. And boy are the delicious! Irene knew the best pintxos bars to go to and gave us the VIP treatment. The best pintxos in Bilbao were along the Plaza Barria.
First we went to Gure Toki and tried the chicken skewer in potato and a shrimp egg roll looking thing.
Then we went to Victor Montes and tried this incredible squid ink croquette. It looked disgusting and I definitely would not have ordered it myself, but it was amazing. Here we also had txacoli, the local white wine which they pour from high above to get some carbonation. My favorite wine of the trip.
At Sorginzulo we had patatas bravas and some kind of seafood. Apparently, you can order off menu and get the really good stuff. The sauce on the patatas was so creamy and kind of tasted like Big Mac sauce. This is also where Tyler learned how to pour his own txacoli. We got a bottle of the stuff and all practiced our pours. It is harder than it looks.
Next up was the huge mercado where we walked around looking at the various types of meat you could buy, such as cow balls. Our pintxos here was some kind of meat and foie gras. Tyler loved it.
The last stop of the food tour was Berton, a funky little joint where we got shrimp skewers in olive oil. By this time it had started to get much more crowded, and we had had much more wine.
Lastly, of course we had dessert.
Eat Amazing Food
In San Sebastian, we chose to go to Amelia, a 1 Michelin star restaurant of a famous chef Paulo Airaudo. The restaurant uses sustainable, seasonal ingredients while incorporating some fun. The restaurant is decorated with action figures and comic book characters.
The beginning of dinner starts with a trip down to the kitchen to see where the magic happens. Chef Airaudo was down there, just doing some business on his computer. I always like a kitchen tour so you can see what the people who are touching your food look like.
It was the little touches that I really appreciated at this dinner, such as the butter shaped in the form of Mario or the Darth Vader gummy desserts. We had an amazing meal here.
On a more casual note, we had lunch at Bar Nestor, a place with only 3 things on the menu: steak, tomatoes, and peppers. We got there before it opened and waited in the line of tourists. It was a good thing, because we ended up snagging a coveted spot at the bar to stand and eat our meal. It’s a tiny place, so really only 20 people could get in when it opened and everyone else went to the waiting list.
I ordered some txacoli and loved watching them pour it in the glass. When it was time to order, the waiter came over with two steaks and asked us to pick the size, we went with the small one. We also got some peppers which came out first. They were the right mixture of salty and oily, a great flavor combination.
The steak comes out on a sizzling plate that allows you to cook it to the temperature you prefer. The flavor profile of the steak was unlike any other I have had. Really might have been the best steak. I’m not sure how anyone could eat the larger size because we were stuffed by the time we were done.
Although we had to stand up to eat, and it was so crowded that people were shoving you in the back the whole time, the experience here was amazing.
Explore San Sebastian
San Sebastian is an beach town. Although you have to walk down stairs to get to the beach, the majority of the hotels are overlooking the sand. The tide rises so much during the day that the stairs are necessary otherwise the buildings would get washed away. It wasn’t exactly beach weather while we were there, but we enjoyed sitting at a cafe along the shore and watching the tide roll in.
There were also a few sand artists that would draw their art during the morning before the tides came in. They had blankets where you could throw down coins to them. Pretty good business idea.
There was also a guy who played Beatles songs with his puppets.
Wandering through the city, we found many different churches and park areas. Everything was old and beautiful.
Pintxos and Txacoli
Our favorite girl Irene sent us a list of places to try out for pintxos in San Sebastian, and once again she was right on the mark.
White chocolate foie gras
Some kind of meats
La Cuchara de San Telmo
Steak on bread aka solomillo
Arroz ecologico y Cordero
When visiting San Sebastian, I would recommend taking the Funicular Monte Igueldo up to the top of the mountain where an amusement park awaits. There’s also some pretty sweet views of the beaches down below. We rode this silly little roller coaster that takes you around the edge of mountain and goes down a few fun hills. It was cool to see the different vantage points without have to walk. It was a little chilly, so be sure to bring a jacket.
Lodging – Vincci Consulado de Bilbao
Food fancy – Eneko
Food casual – Gure Toki, Victor Montes, Sorginzulo, Berton
Food fancy – Amelia
Food casual – Goiz Argi, Txepetxa, La Cuchara de San Telmo, Gandarias